In the early seventies The FA experimented with a pre-season trophy (known as the Watney Mann Invitation Cup) that brought together the top scoring teams in each of the league’s four divisions that were not involved in European competition.
On 7th August 1971 Colchester United of the 4th division took on 1st division West Bromwich Albion in the final in front of a bumper crowd at the Hawthorns, and emerged victorious in one of the first penalty shoot-outs (Note ref Derby shootout – first ever) ever to take place in English Football. To prove the lower leagues triumph was no fluke, the 1972 competition was won by 3rd Division Bristol Rovers, again against top division Sheffield United.
All this, of course, occurred in more equitable times in Britain before it had become fashionable to privatise everything that moves, before people spoke of a gulf between the élan of the Premier League and the stereotypical British clogger of the Football League and perhaps most importantly before our game was subjected to an image makeover and re-packaged for the 21st Century and sold to the world by that unscrupulous omnipresent media mogul whose influence, sadly, stretches way beyond the sphere of football. Such a tournament seems unthinkable today. Indeed the very existence of lower league clubs is ‘beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men’.
Bolton chairman Phil Gartside, for example, advocated an outrageously self-seeking scheme which sustains that the Premier League elite are so good they should be put into a two-tier Premier League granting them permanent immunity from facing the cloggers of the lower leagues. A wonderful scheme for guaranteeing his own clubs television money and revenue streams but slightly flawed for the majority of the other sides in England.
Another grave danger for the survival of league football as a spectacle is the highly controversial Elite Performance Player Plan. The EPPP, worthy of a separate post in its own right, proposes a return to allowing the top clubs carte-blanche geographically, abandoning the existing rule banning clubs from taking players more than 90 minutes from their base and goes a step further giving Category 1 academies (the richest clubs) the opportunity to cherry-pick the best kids in exchange for minimal set compensation to Category 4 pauper academies.
A strong advocate of the scheme, unsurprisingly, is Sir Alex Ferguson. Ferguson argues that lifting the current geographical restriction (applied in 1992) will allow his side the chance to unearth another Beckham and to ‘get the production line we had in the past going again’.
The highly industrialised North-West of England has a population approaching twice that of the Basque region, where Athletic Bilbao operate a strict policy of fielding only Basques. The Basque side, led by prowling neurotic genius Marcelo Bielsa, tore Ferguson’s team apart, both at the Theatre of Dreams and at the San Mames a week later.
The main factors for the victory: dynamic football pressing the opposition in their own half, excellent technique, the tactical prowess of the Argentine, you name it. Whatever it was, Bilbao’s production line didn’t seem at all hampered by being restricted to plucking players from their own region.
If Manchester United’s undoubtedly well-developed scouting network is unable to unearth suitably talented players from an area with twice the population of the Basque Region then surely the quality of youngster we are producing simply isn’t good enough.
Lower-league clubs struggle to reconcile the money coming through the turnstile with players’ wage expectations, which are higher than ever as each player looks to earn as much as he can from the game’s commercial success, in an admittedly short career.
Time and time again in England, there is a tendency to try to find an economic solution to problems that are far more deep-rooted. Take the much-vaunted £100 million Burton facility which is aimed at increasing the number of English players in the Premier League. The idea of equating financial investment to success on the pitch has some weight, but cannot explain the success of players brought up in poverty, like Maradona or Pele. Maybe instead of building grandiose new academies we should be looking to recreate the conditions of the Latin American slum, though one could argue the Coalition Government are already hard at work on this one.
What is desperately needed in this country is not a multi-million pound facility, but a serious debate on the way we play the game. One of the best ‘second-ball’ men in the English game must be Kevin Nolan. For those uninitiated in Allardyce theory, the ‘second-ball’ man is the bloke who hares around chasing the knockdowns by centre-half or centre-forward after a long-punt from defence. It is a moderately successful tactic against fellow-English cloggers, but is an utter embarrassment on the European or international stage. I wonder who is the best ‘second-ball’ man in La Liga, or who is the Rory Delap equivalent?
The current media frenzy surrounding the untouchables of the Premier League, chasing the magical top four with all its attendant perks, is sold to us as the be-all and end-all, patronising anyone who supports anyone other than the top four is en vogue and there is an endemic ‘results game’ mentality. It is all getting rather mundane.
The Premier League is endlessly rammed down our throats as a ‘product’ of consumer capitalism that you would be mad to ignore. Every time a Premier League team edges past a Football League team we hear ad nauseum about how the ‘class has shone through’, and on the odd occasion when the opposite happens a lynch mob awaits the Premier League manager for failing with his superior players.
The fact that Aaron Wilbraham joined an elite club of players who have scored in all four divisions could be just an anomaly, but I prefer to think it proof that the lower leagues still produces players capable of competing at the top level.
But who cares about the lower leagues? Why would anyone waste their Saturdays watching that rubbish? Are they just masochists? Have they nothing better to do with their lives? Haven’t they heard of Sky or the Trafford Centre?
Around 350,000 people in the UK go to watch games outside the promised land of the Premiership, many of which know full well their team will never play at the top level, but are just content to support their local side.
Fans glean huge satisfaction from watching young players come through the ranks, improve week-by-week, maybe even score at the away ground of a more illustrious rival. Gaining a hard-earned victory against technically better players is extremely satisfying, one because you know it’s a fleeting victory and two because you know how hard your players have worked for it.
In the Sky era which privileges the clubs in the top division to the detriment of the football league, it is nigh on impossible a modern-day equivalent of the Watney Cup could take place with a side from Division 4 (N-Power League 2 for the young ‘uns) running out winners. Surely four divisions of clubs each endeavouring to play decent football with a good number of English players is something we should aspire to. The logical conclusion of the current direction is that lower leagues clubs will stop running their academies. This may be good news for Premier League clubs in terms of hoovering up youngsters, but is it really good news for English football?
The best players in the lower leagues will soon find their way to the top. To give the big sides yet another helping hand will inevitably lower the quality in the Football League and damage smaller clubs in the long-term. And for what? So they can join enormous squads of 70-plus players unable to even get reserve team football? So the Premier League owners can save a few quid? Lower-league clubs are quite clearly in a desperate state and little more than lip-service is being paid to their long-term interests.
Disguising the transparent greed of the elite with the wider interests of the English game is another example of the corrosive cynicism that is making life at the bottom so difficult in today’s Britain.